Five tips to learn complex concepts

A postgraduate student writing revision notes in a notepad.
A postgraduate student writing revision notes in a notepad.

Postgraduate studies are demanding. Students are expected to learn a lot of new information in a short amount of time, and it can be natural to feel a little overwhelmed—however, feeling overwhelmed doesn’t mean that you are! 

Tough academic challenges may induce self-doubt, but postgraduate study is a great opportunity to improve your learning skills, and there are many strategies available that make it easier to learn complex concepts. 

#1 The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is a learning strategy developed by Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who believes that many people study in a way that inadvertently prioritises “knowing the name” of a concept, rather than understanding it. His approach, which focuses on studying to improve understanding, consists of the following steps:

  1. Write an explanation of the concept; make it as simple as you can and avoid using jargon. Do not consult reference material during this step.
  2. Consider which aspects of the concept you had trouble explaining and review them. Repeat step 1 again until you can explain the entire concept.
  3. Once you have written down a complete explanation, try to simplify your explanation further, without making it less substantive. Use this step to assess whether there are any further aspects of the concept that you’re still not confident in and need to review.

This strategy forces the learner to actively create new material about the concept they’re studying, and in doing so, prevents them from focusing on inefficient memory-based study methods.

#2 The ADEPT approach

The ADEPT approach was developed by Kalid Azad, a maths educator and learning specialist, as a way to make it easier to learn difficult concepts. The acronym describes the method’s five steps for learning new material.

1.  Analogy: Illustrate the concept with a comparison

2.  Diagram: Draw the concept

3.  Example: Provide a simple example

4.  Plain English: Describe it in everyday words

5.  Technical Definition: Provide formal details 

Writing about a concept using analogies, diagrams, examples, and plain English forces you to think creatively about it from multiple angles. This study method results in the creation of many different mental representations of the concept you’re studying, which makes it easier to remember. 

To integrate ADEPT with the Feynman technique, replace Feynman Step 1 with ADEPT, or use ADEPT to build your initial understanding and then use Feynman afterwards. Azad’s explanation of his method goes into further detail about the ADEPT process and provides numerous math-centric examples of how it works.

A female postgraduate student drawing a diagram on a whiteboard as part of the ADEPT learning approach.

#3 Mental spacing

Mental spacing is the practice of learning in a consistent, well-paced manner. It prioritises learning many concepts over a longer period as opposed to focusing on one concept at a time.

The “not understanding” phase of studying a new concept can be frustrating, which makes it tempting to focus all of your energy on learning it as fast as possible. Unfortunately, this is an inefficient way to learn complex information. Focusing your studies on one concept at a time is akin to gardening by dumping all of your fertiliser on a single plant—that plant will get more fertiliser than it needs, and the rest of the garden won’t grow. Studying a variety of concepts regularly will result in a healthier “garden” over the long-term.

By practicing mental spacing, you will also become better aware of which concepts you’re learning quickly and which you need to dedicate more time to. This will help you to plan your study time more efficiently and with more confidence. 

#4 Track your learning

Mental spacing makes it easier to track your learning, which is a fantastic way to make it easier to set learning goals that are measurable, reasonable, and reachable. By tracking your learning, you’ll create a record of your progress that highlights your learning achievements as they happen and makes it easier to set effective study goals. 

Like other strategies, this process can be divided into discrete steps:

1.      Write everything you know about the subject. You’ll always know something about it, even if it’s something small.

2.      Write down what you want to know—your learning goals.

3.      At the end of each study session, write down what you’ve learned, and what gaps in your knowledge still remain. 

Following these three steps will give you concrete starting and finishing points for your studies, and establish a record of how you got from one to the other. Your finishing point (your goal) can be scoped for any length of time, whether it be the next day, week, month, etc—whatever makes the most sense for your needs. 

#5 Optimise your brain’s study strengths

Whenever we learn a new concept, our understanding of that concept progresses through a predictable series of stages. Based on the work of Scott Young, a learning expert who completed MIT’s undergraduate computer science degree in twelve months, these stages are:

1.  Confusion

2.  Initial understanding

3.  Expanded understanding

4.  Refined understanding (identify gaps)

5.  Repeat stages 1-4 to fill gaps 

These stages reflect how our brains learn new information, and we can learn more efficiently by studying in a manner that maximises the strengths of that process. For instance, research shows that participants who study a topic twice in one day will learn that topic more slowly than those who study it twice in two days. It will also take longer to re-learn that topic if they study it again six months later—you learn best when you pace your studies over an extended period.

Paced learning provides your brain with the time necessary to switch between its “focused mode”—when neural activity is concentrated in the prefrontal cortex—and the “diffuse mode”, which doesn’t concentrate activity anywhere. Diffuse learning is more creative and flexible than focused learning is; it takes place when the brain is “at rest”, and creates connections that focused learning does not. The process of “figuring something out” requires both focused and diffuse thought, which is part of why Archimedes only figured out how displacement works while taking a bath.

Adult man sitting in a cafe taking notes on an assignment for his masters degree.

Study for success

A hard work ethic is admirable, but a smart work ethic is just as important. The use of learning strategies such as the above will improve your learning efficiency so that you’re always on-top of your goals. The University of New South Wales’ online postgraduate programs are designed to help students meet their goals, which is why UNSW has one of the top postgraduate employment rates in Australia.

Students in UNSW’s online programs receive the same quality education our offline students do, but with the flexibility to schedule their learning around their busy lives. To learn more about what our online postgraduate courses have to offer, get in touch with us on 1300 974 990.